By Elizabeth Kadetsky
You come home from spring break and notice there are a lot of moths upstairs. You left the blinds closed in the bedroom, you think, so maybe that caused this proliferation of moths. Darkness. You open the shades, sleep with them open, which causes insomnia.
The next day there are more moths, and the next day more. You check all your sweaters hanging in the closet, but they’re okay. You think of buying naphthalene. But that must be toxic, you think, so you Google this, or, rather, you Google “moth infestation,” and you also Google “non-toxic moth repellant.”
Google tells you: Where there are moths, there’s sure to be larva.
You think on this a few days, while killing a moth here and there. Moths linger up in the corner, near the ceiling. The next day more moths, and next day a dozen, and the following two dozen. Within a week you notice, during the day, that there are brown streaks across the top third of the wall, streaks of dead moth, a testament to your murder spree. Within a week there are moths everywhere, really, but the wool in the closet has survived. At night, sleeping, or trying to sleep, with the shades open, you lie awake thinking. You think, why are there so many moths? If there’s larva, where is it hiding? You check the closet with your clothes, but this is not the epicenter. Epicenter. Google advises you to locate the epicenter.
Spring is the time of getting accepted to an Ivy League school or getting a job offer from an Ivy League school or getting a summer fellowship to study something at an Ivy League school, but none of that has ever worked out for you.
One night, lying awake, you remember the closet in the other room where you store things. Rugs, a few winter coats. It’s 5:00 a.m., and dawn is creeping in with an accusatory glare. It’s a few days past the daylight savings change. The brightness of today’s 5:00 a.m. takes you off guard. Spring always suggests there are things to be done, things to be accomplished. You’ve never liked spring, as if its optimism, that sense of opportunity, is something you can never match. Spring is the time of getting accepted to an Ivy League school or getting a job offer from an Ivy League school or getting a summer fellowship to study something at an Ivy League school, but none of that has ever worked out for you. You went to a state school, and you teach, now, at a state school, where you champion your students and tell them that they will persevere and succeed against odds. You feel anxiety about all those letters of recommendation you wrote in the fall. Are your students getting accepted? At your state school they have strict policies against grade inflation. This, you are thinking, in bed, at 5:00 a.m., is really not fair. These poor state-school students without the benefit of grade inflation are competing against Harvard kids with their grade inflation for spots in grad schools. Not fair, you think, while in the back of your mind you try to locate, mentally, the source of the moth infestation.
Your body seems to work ahead of your mind; it tiptoes to the other room, the room with the closet. Your finger flicks on the lamp, your eyes darting first to the ceiling, where your out-of-body-seeming self notices, lambent in the light, dozens of moths hanging from the ceiling by the sliver threads of filament legs. They are like miniature bats, really, and you wonder if you’ll contract a disease from having killed so many of these moths with your bare fingers. You feel that creeping itchy feeling at your neck associated with pestilence and/or delusory parasitosis, something you’ve felt here or there in your life in the past when worried about bedbugs or mosquitoes or fleas, though none of these in the end escalated to full-blown, mortal cases. But this case is real. You can see the moths and feel the chalky pulp of their remains between your thumb and index finger.
You open the closet and indeed find, flying in a swirl, dozens of minuscule moths inside. You see your green fall coat and shoo away moths from the collar. On the floor: your bags of knitting. The knitting!—ruined, you think, but you extract the shopping bags, shooing away moths, and discover that nothing has been eaten. You remove the yarn skein by skein, salvaging each, killing dozens of moths by hand, gently laying the knitting needles to the side and fantasizing about skewering giant moths with said needles and wondering about the wisdom of the new change in airline policy you heard about on NPR stipulating that needles are now acceptable to carry on.
These larval subtractions seem to be telling their own story. They are telling a story. You know the story, immediately.
The closet is very warm. A heat pipe runs through it. It’s as if a steam is rising off the rugs on the floor, but this is just the whirr of moths floating in a haze of what looks like moth euphoria, moth delirium. You flip aside the rim of one rug and witness more moths, swarming, really. This is in fact the most repellent thing you’ve witnessed. The rug has runic larval patches carved out of its front, as if to echo its own Oriental pattern. These larval subtractions seem to be telling their own story. They are telling a story. You know the story, immediately.
The story is this: your mother died of Alzheimer’s a year and a half ago. Plaques and tangles corroded her mind. The Alzheimer’s brain really does get smaller. This was her rug. The plaques ate at the fibers of her mind in the same runic patterns as on this rug. Her last words before she died were, “That’s nice.” You were playing her a fugal Bach concerto on your iPod. That’s nice. She seemed to relax, with the music, for several seconds, and then she screamed. Then she reposed with the satisfied alien grimace that had become the mask of her final days with the disease. Then she screamed again, but you were used to it. It didn’t mean anything. The nurses knew this, too. The scream was just an expression, at attempt to connect to the world. She was the madwoman in the attic, your beautiful, once charming mother. That’s nice. She still loved Bach.
Standing by the closet, at dawn, you put on a rain poncho. You hurl the contaminated rug to the curb. Tomorrow is garbage day. You vacuum every corner of the room and put the vacuum bag out with the garbage too. The vacuum has inhaled hundreds of live moths, and they are squirming in the vacuum bag out on the curb. The problem is solved. It’s done.
You hadn’t noticed during the month you had the rug in the living room the little ruts drawn out by the larvae, the patterns like brain ruts going over and over the same old worries. When will my new book get sold? When will I get a better job?
But, really, its mental residue is not gone. The next day you wake once again to springtime’s 5:00 a.m. You think about things, such as: This house you own but really owe, to the bank. Those moths in the closet and the patterns their larva formed in the old rug, the rug that you put down in the living room when you bought the house but that emitted this black sand that stuck to your thighs every time you sat on it, or if you turned it up at the corner there was this light dusting of it, a rug pad without the connective fiber, why did it never go away, the more you vacuumed and vacuumed, but the other day you discovered on Google that this was, actually, of course, larval excrement. You think about how, at age forty-seven, your age now, your mother received $30,000 in an inheritance from her father and she fell into an obsessive rhythm, sitting on the internet clickclickclick buying things on eBay, spent it all on eBay. Buying oriental rugs, my sister said. How do you spend $30,000 on eBay? Click click. In retrospect, we thought she’d had Alzheimer’s already. Later, when she really had it, all she did was play computer solitaire on the monitor and drive my sister nuts. Clickclick. It’s destroying her mind, my sister would say, but, perhaps, really, it was helping her preserve it. The carpet was one of the things she’d bought on eBay. Can larva cause Alzheimer’s you wonder, seriously, and you Google it, but find nothing.
You hadn’t noticed during the month you had the rug in the living room the little ruts drawn out by the larvae, the patterns like brain ruts going over and over the same old worries. When will my new book get sold? When will I get a better job? When will I be married with child with great salary with career with success with fame? When will I prove all my mistakes were for good measure, that I did them on purpose, that there was a trajectory to my life and even if I wasn’t completely in control? There will seem to have been an inevitability in retrospect, later, won’t there?
During the day I see it, that path backwards making sense of my choices. I am a professor. My students call me Professor Kadetsky. If I email my state-school kids wondering about a missed assignment, they email me right back, contrite, and show up in office hours the next day with crocodile faces. I glare at them. Water beads in their eyes. I say it’s okay they’ll get a B. Life goes on. During the day everything, everything, makes sense.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review, Post Road, Agni and elsewhere, and her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices and Best American Short Stories notable stories. Her memoir was published by Little, Brown in 2004 and is scheduled for rEprint with Dzanc Books. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State.